The Man Without A Past (12A)

Review by Simone Bazelli



ACCLAIMED Finnish absurdist director - and well-known pisshead - Aki Kaurismaki ain't treading unfamiliar ground here: The do-it-yourself dockyard homes of Helsinki's seriously underprivileged, barely surviving through poverty and lack of opportunity, share the same demographic of his earlier Drifting Clouds (1996).

No worry, though. This is just as funny, if not more, than even his most celebrated Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989).

We follow a mystery man, freshly deposited in Finland's capital (we have no idea why or how), who gets beating so savage (we see his collarbone cave in with the thud of a baseball bat), he dies in hospital. That is, until he wakes up suddenly from a coma, covered in bandages, a la The Invisible Man, and dumbstruck with acute amnesia.

Unable to remember his identity or his past, he must squeeze out an existence with no job or home. Taken in by a family on the breadline, he begins a resurrection with Kati Outinen's sad and lonely Salvation Army volunteer.

But the noirish elements - just look at the central character's name, "M", and the title of the film itself - leave you in no doubt that something dodgy from his previous life is on its way to trip him up any moment now...

The actors move as though struck with severe stage fright: wooden, deadpan and without any remote glimmer of expression. But it's just this calculated, genuine oddity that generates much of the film's laughs; M's blank and impassive response to each and every stumbling block is rich in tragedy and comedy in equal measure: Why converse when a simple drag on a roll-up says it all…?

Kaurismaki always likes to cast his dogs in his films. Here we have Tahti (Star, to us non-Fins) in a few scene-stealing moments: Like when he looks passively into thin air when ordered by his bullying, shipyard security guard master to bite someone's head off. (In fact, the film won the "Palm Dog" award at the Cannes Film Festival for the best animal role.)

This Friday, The Man Without a Past goes up against the film that narrowly beat it to the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2002 - The Pianist.

The director - despite giving birth to the festival's critical favourite - settled for the second place Grand Prix... No mean feat, really. In fact his film was the only one to receive two prizes, also taking the best actress award for Outinen.